A lawsuit several women are waging against a University of Wyoming sorority and its first transgender member has national implications, says a constitutional expert.
Seven past and present members of Kappa Kappa Gamma’s University of Wyoming chapter are suing the sorority, claiming it has violated its stated purpose by inducting a transgender member.
They also have included the transgender member in the lawsuit, Artemis Langford, whom the sorority inducted in September 2022. But the women aren’t demanding monetary damages from Langford.
David Adler, Ph.D., constitutional scholar and president of the Alturas Institute in Idaho, told Cowboy State Daily that the case has huge implications far beyond one sorority chapter on the UW campus – but also a few hurdles to overcome.
Adler said the lawsuit will inspire others like it in other states.
“This is kind of an issue that has a very good chance of winding up in the U.S. Supreme Court in a couple of years,” he said. “The floodgates are open.”
Before testing questions of law brought by the seven women, courts look to see whether they have “standing.” That is, a right to complain under the laws they’ve evoked, said Adler.
Some of the anonymous women who have filed the complaint are still sorority members. Others were sorority members when Langford was inducted but are not any longer.
The women who are still in the sorority have a stronger standing claim, said Adler.
“They reside in the sorority house and they can argue that the contractual terms that they agreed to – to pay for room and access to the house – have been violated,” said Adler.
Wyoming Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, who is an attorney experienced in civil law, told Cowboy State Daily he’s not sure if the women have chosen the right forum.
They filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, a federal court. But they have evoked state laws, not federal laws, in their filing, he said.
“I’m sympathetic to the plaintiffs wanting to be able to go to an all-female sorority, and now they can’t,” said Stith. “So I’m sympathetic to that goal. … I just don’t know that they’re going to win.”
The case still can go forward in federal court if the plaintiffs can show that they and the defendants are from different states and the contested amount of money is more than $75,000, he said.
Stith said the sorority defendants may call the women’s residency claims into question.
While, for example, one of the anonymous “Jane Doe” plaintiffs says she is a University of Wyoming student and a Nebraska resident, the defendants may question whether she’s actually a Wyoming resident since she spends most of her time in Wyoming.
Freedom Of Association
If U.S. District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson agrees to hear the case, it could boil down to a private organization’s right to determine its own membership.
The U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale ruled that Boy Scouts organizations have the right to keep gay men from being scoutmasters under the First Amendment’s promise of freedom of association.
That decision could bear upon the sorority case, Adler said.
“That precedent would likewise uphold the right of Kappa Kappa Gamma to admit as a member Artemis Langford,” he said. “(The sorority) made that determination. They drew that conclusion that her stated identity qualifies for or meets the sorority’s criteria for admission.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, are arguing that the sorority has been unfaithful to its 150-year-old founding documents and other governing documents, which state that only “women” can be in the sorority.
They’ve evoked a derivative cause of action, meaning as shareholders in the organization they’re suing to protect it. The women allege that the sorority’s Wyoming-chapter numbers and its revenues have been dropping quickly since Langford was inducted.
Transgender Employee Standard?
Adler told Cowboy State Daily he believes that if the sorority wanted to exclude Langford for being transgender, it may run into problems under the 2020 case Bostock vs. Clayton County, in which the Supreme Court held that employers can’t discriminate against transgender people for employment purposes.
Stith disagrees, saying he doesn’t expect the Bostock decision to spread to the membership rights of private organizations, and he reads it as pertaining strictly to employee issues.
One way the sorority could settle the case without compromising its right to determine its membership, said Adler, would be to void Langford’s membership based on the “offensive” conduct alleged in the complaint.
“The sorority could reexamine and could exclude Langford on that basis – for the alleged gawking and staring and other activities in the suit,” said Adler.
It would be a way out of the conflict that dodges some of the legal questions surrounding transgender issues.
The women in the complaint allege that Langford sits in the sorority house and watches them, sometimes covertly, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes when they’re scantily clad.
“Mr. Smith has, while watching members enter the sorority house, had an erection visible through his leggings,” the lawsuit says. “Other times, he has had a pillow in his lap.”
The legal complaint refers to Langford as “Terry Smith” because the plaintiffs’ attorneys, John Knepper and Cassie Craven, have asked for pseudonymity to protect both Langford and the plaintiffs.
Democratic Party Figure
However, Langford has been outspoken about being the sorority’s first transgender member, and has become a well-known figure as a legislative intern for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Wyoming Democratic Party chair Joe Barbuto did not immediately respond Wednesday to a Cowboy State Daily voicemail requesting comment. However, the party announced via Twitter on Tuesday that Langford has been elected as a “state committeewoman” for the Albany County Democrats.
Breach Of Contact
The complaint says that the Wyoming-based sorority housing organization and the national organization both breached the women’s housing contracts by making them understand they were entering a single-sex sisterhood and then inducting a biological male.
Stith said these claims are “clever,” but they’re still not federal causes of action.
Adler said that here, again, the sorority has a way out of the lawsuit that would dodge the tougher questions of law: The sorority could try to settle by releasing the women from their contracts.
“The sorority (could) say, ‘We’ll release you from your housing agreement if that’s what you wish, because you’re not comfortable with a transgendered person in our sorority, or you don’t agree with us that Langford is a transgendered person,’” said Adler.
The New ‘Guide’
The sorority for about 150 years was a single-sex organization for women. But in 2018, sorority leaders issued a “guide” saying it now considers women to be people who identify as women.
The plaintiffs say the sorority cannot simply alter its founding documents and intentions with a guide.
Adler theorizes that it can.
“Organizations are free to interpret and reinterpret their bylaws and codes in light of their own changing standards,” he said. “If the court were to say that an organization must comply with the specific understanding of particular clauses at the time the organization was created 100 years ago – irrespective of changes in attitude and philosophy within the sorority itself – that would certainly impinge upon the autonomy of the sorority.”